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Choosing Friends Wisely

The expression “New best friend” became popular a few years back.  It is a tongue-in-cheek phrase that can mean different things.  When the phrase is used to introduce a new friend to someone, for example, “Meet Rose, my new best friend,” it means “I like this new friend a lot.”  However, if the phrase is delivered in a sarcastic manner to describe someone else’s new friend—for example, “Joan is at the mall with her new best friend, Natalie”—it probably means that Joan’s ability to choose friends wisely is suspect and this most recent friendship with Natalie is just one more bad choice.

Like Joan, many folks have difficulty choosing friends wisely and get caught in a pattern of jumping from one “new best friend” to another.  This is not surprising because the skill needed to make good choices is one that calls for patience and thoughtfulness. One can easily get too close too soon to someone who on the surface seems to offer real friendship but over time proves to be a “false friend”; that is, someone incapable of offering real, caring friendship and whose motivation to be a friend is consciously or unconsciously self-serving. 

When I counsel individuals about friendships, be they platonic or romantic, my mantra is “Time is your greatest ally.”  It is based on the assumption that no one can hide their real motivations indefinitely.  Over time, the truth will always come out.  Thus, by being cautious and avoiding jumping too heavily into a new friendship, one can avoid unpleasant experiences.

There are different reasons for why we get fooled into thinking false friends are real friends. Some folks are initially very attractive because they have one or two outstanding qualities.  For example, I am personally attracted to playful people with a witty and quick sense of humor.  I enjoy being entertained by such individuals.  However, over the years I have met folks who possessed this quality but were ultimately not good friendship material because they viewed me more as an appreciative audience than as a friend. They were more comfortable on stage than in a caring friendship.

Some folks initially are appealing because they are very good listeners and seem to give sound advice.  But over time, one discovers that they are only content when the discussion allows them to be the doctor to your patient. The lack of equality eventually takes its toll and one eventually backs out of the friendship.

Others are appealing because they are very bright, well read and articulate.  But over time, like the entertainer already described, some turn out to prefer holding court to hearing what you have to say.

Some folks are quite vulnerable and willing to share their innermost feelings and worries.  Initially this seems honest and real but over time it becomes burdensome because they consistently focus on their own problems to the exclusion of everyone else including you.  You soon become tired of being the listening post and must extricate yourself from the role.

Sometimes new friends are appealing to us because they compliment us, bend to our wishes, make it a point to contour to our needs and never impose their own needs on us.  This desire to please us can be initially seductive and for a while it helps us to feel good about ourselves, but over time such a selfless friend begins to feel heavy and we begin to build a debt that cannot be repaid.

All of the above examples are designed to increase your awareness of how we can be seduced into a false friendship. I have had some clients ask me, “So, why not use feeling messages with these false friends to increase their awareness and help them to become real friends?  My answer is that I use feeling messages judiciously.  If I determine that someone has the potential to be a good friend I am then willing to share my feelings about problems within the relationship in an attempt to enrich it and take it to a deeper, more meaningful level.  But if I discover, over time, that the person is locked strongly into a mode of interaction that makes friendship very difficult or extremely troublesome, I accept the reality that we cannot be close friends and I move on.

The point of developing our awareness of what makes a good friend and of having good communication skills is not so that we can convert false friends into good ones. It is to give us the option to avoid the pain and hurt that comes from investing energy and time in friendships with those who cannot reciprocate.  The reality is that we will not want to be buddies or confidants with every person we meet.  Given this fact, the next best thing is to build and maintain good friendships with folks who have the capacity to respond in kind and to have the wisdom to spot those who do not.


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